Zen and the enlighenment of Christians

I have often been asked to recommend an introductory book–to Thomas Merton, to meditation, to Christianity. Recently a friend lent me a book she had enjoyed: Resurrecting Jesus–Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, by Adyashanti. He is a teacher in the Zen tradition, and writes books on spirituality.

What I found most interesting about this book was its perspective on conversion, or changing one’s religion. The conservative segments of Christianity favour conversion, with the ideal being a world in which everyone was a Christian. The liberal segments typically take a pluralistic view, with all major traditions granted respect, and no expectation of conversion to Christianity–although of course in a free country, everyone is free to change religions if they so wish. (I say “major” traditions: I’m not ready to respect Scientology or the Moonies.)

Adyashanti takes a different view. He wants Christians to remain Christian, *and* to open themselves and experience enlightenment. In other words, for him, enlightenment is the important thing, and it doesn’t matter in which tradition it occurs so long as it does occur. I find this very appealing. He holds before us a vision of the major traditions, the members of which live lives of inner experience of divinity, an enlightened state in which we know ourselves as divine.  Here’s a paragraph that expresses this point of view.

Today we’re in need of a mythos that shows us what real, engaged spirituality looks like. The words of the Jesus story have inspired people for the better part of two thousand years. And yet, those words and images need us to breathe new life into them so that they once again come to life within us and reveal heaven here on earth. For Jesus the Christ walks amongst us even now, in the depths of our own consciousness, proclaiming the reality of eternal life that is present in the core of our being. 

He says that we need to “pour ourselves into the story,” “become the story in ourselves,” “breathe the all-transforming spirit of new life,” and thereby “reclaim the original power it once had before it became weighed down by centuries of egoic misunderstanding. When we become the story, we resurrect it from all of the old ways, . . . as Jesus had intended it to do.”

Enlightenment, or, in the Zen tradition, satori, is what he wants for everyone. He wants Buddhists to be enlightened while remaining Buddhist, Christians while remaining Christian, and so on. The larger vision this holds before us is of a family of religious traditions, their members living enlightened spiritual lives, working together in love, joy and peace. Now that I think about it, this is very close to what Thomas Merton might say.

Enlightenment for all: may it be so!

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Interview with Michael Bell

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Courtesy of the University of Windsor

Interview with Michael Bell

The University of Windsor’s senior scholar for international diplomacy and former ambassador to Israel, Jordan and Egypt talks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Canada’s response

By Donald Grayston

Q What was it like being the Canadian ambassador to Israel?
A I first went to Israel as a middle-ranking political officer from 1975 to ’78, and then later returned for two stints as ambassador from 1990 to ’92 and 1999 to 2003. I enjoyed my time there. Israel has a tremendously impressive society. A good part of my enjoyment, I have to say, I attribute to the complexity of the situation, to trying to comprehend the struggle between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It was enormously intellectually stimulating, in particular living among a people that privilege active discussion. Education is highly valued, and many Israelis are notable for continued learning. This wasn’t true of the entire country, of course; you could live in largely secular Tel Aviv with virtually no awareness or discussion of what was happening in the West Bank.
Q What is your take, at the present moment, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
A The options for a viable solution, one leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state, have greatly diminished since my time there. The current Israeli government is right wing and expansionist, meaning that it wants to extend the Jewish presence in the West Bank by means of the so-called settlements. This precludes the creation of a viable Palestinian state. There are shortcomings on the Palestinian side as well.
The last real opportunity for an agreement was at the time of the “napkin map” affair in 2008. Then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert showed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas a map of possible land-swap proposals but refused to allow him to take it with him, after which Abbas sketched a version of the map by hand on a napkin. In those discussions, Olmert proposed a land swap in which Israel would annex the settlements it had already established in Palestinian-majority East Jerusalem in return for land concessions by Israel to Palestinians elsewhere. After Olmert left, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office and dismissed previous discussions, insisting on starting all over again.
Opinion has hardened since then because of the frustration both sides feel about what they see as the unwillingness of the other side to concede anything. Distrust has grown on both sides, particularly among the Palestinians. The anxiety is palpable.
Q Do you think the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is permanent?
A I prefer to remain hopeful, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Years ago, there was a decent chance for a viable two-state solution, but now the settlements — with over half a million nationalist Israelis in them — are a growing and cancerous obstacle. After the failure of the Abbas-Olmert discussions, Hamas, in Gaza, argued that Abbas’s Fatah party was corrupt, that it couldn’t deliver, that it had nothing concrete to offer and that violence was the only option. It’s difficult to think that in any case those discussions would have arrived at a resolution based on the 1967 borders. Later, then-Israeli president Shimon Peres, on his own initiative, tried to restart far-reaching discussions with Mahmoud Abbas, but was told to drop them by Netanyahu.
I’m not sure, in fact, whether the conflict is resolvable at all. So many opportunities have been missed. The Americans, Canadians and the other key players would have to be willing to pay a very high political price in terms of domestic opinion. Occupation practices, including collective punishment, can be brutal and are the subject of considerable criticism from Israeli human rights and centre-left groups.
Q The Israeli government, you’ve said, is right wing. What about the left?
A If I were an Israeli on the moderate left, and I know many, I would be very discouraged. The current circumstances in much of the Arab world have fuelled a sense of siege, and with reason. They fear Islamic extremism and a nuclear Iran, and they fear that the establishment of a Palestinian state might give extremists entree into the Israeli heartland.
Q Where is Canada in all of this?
A Canada is officially opposed to the settlements in the West Bank, as are the Europeans and the Americans, regarding them as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Former prime minister Stephen Harper, however, contrary to stated Canadian foreign policy, volubly favoured Israel, in contrast to the more fair-minded approach of previous Canadian governments. His position, I would say, was based on his personal convictions as a Christian Zionist as well as on political considerations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking a cautious approach, saying that funding for the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Palestinian territories, cancelled by Harper, may be restored. [Editor’s note: Last November, the Canadian government announced that it was restoring funding to UNRWA.] Canada has not been as forthright in its opposition to the settlements as the Europeans or the Americans have.
Q What is the best way for Canadians to inform themselves about the situation?
A I recommend the website of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (fmep.org) and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (haaretz.com). There are many other good sources, including the Middle East Institute (mei.edu), the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (jiis.org), Foreign Affairs magazine and often The Economist.
Q You are a co-director of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative. Can you explain what this project is about?
A It’s a project my colleagues and I have been working on since 2003, when I retired as ambassador. Michael J. Molloy and John Bell are the other co-directors. It involves developing creative options for the governance of the Old City of Jerusalem in preparation for a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. It deals with archeology, law, entry and exit, internal security, economic relations, the status of foreigners, land titles, construction, sewage and much more. It does assume the realization of a two-state situation, the difficulty of which we have already discussed. Jerusalem is a city with which both the Israelis and Palestinians have powerful symbolic, religious and emotional attachments, and agreement on Jerusalem is essential to any workable peace plan. Routledge will publish our work in three volumes over the next year and a half.
Q A motion condemning the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement passed in the House of Commons, and a similar resolution was defeated in the Ontario legislature. How do you see BDS?
A BDS is unlikely to affect Israeli government policy in any major way. However, it has affected, to some degree, the investment climate in Israel. Rightly or wrongly, it contributes to the sense of victimization that many Israelis already have and to the fear of anti-Semitism.
Q You’re an active member of the United Church. Did your time in the Middle East affect your faith in any particular way?
A I think of myself as a progressive Christian. Being in the Holy Land and visiting the authenticated sites of Christ’s activity was very rewarding because it gave me a sense of the real Jesus of Nazareth. It affirmed my sense of the importance of Christian values as I believe Jesus would have articulated them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Founded in 1829, The United Church Observer is the oldest continuously published magazine in North America and the second oldest in the English speaking world. It has won international acclaim for journalistic excellence and garnered more awards for writing than any other Canadian religious publication. Read more…
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Charles Brandt: fifty years a hermit

Last February, my friend and colleague Dave Chang and I travelled to the hamlet of Black Creek, north of Courtenay on Vancouver Island. Our purpose: to interview Charles Brandt–hermit, artist-bookbinder and award-winning ecologist. (The interview will be published in v. 29 of The Thomas Merton Annual (2017).

Today, November 5, at the Roman Catholic parish in Campbell River, BC, he will celebrate and be celebrated for the fifty years he has spent as a hermit, originally at Merville, soon afterward at Black Creek, where he lives in his hermitage, Merton House. Now 93, he says, “I’m looking towards eternity now . . . . I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling.” He is a beautiful old man, a member of a category special to me which includes such others as Dan Berrigan, Trevor Huddleston, Chatral Rinpoche, Bill Shannon and Marie-Bernard Nielly.

His journey to Black Creek took many turns. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, of Danish-English heritage, his family moved to a farm not far from the city when he was five years old. Between high school graduation in 1941 and 1951, he undertook post-secondary studies, interrupted by four years (1942-46) in the US Air Force. He encountered the Episcopal Church during his military service (the family was Methodist), and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church while at Cornell. Over the next four years, he explored Anglican religious communities, and was ordained an Anglican priest in England in 1952 (interestingly to me, at Mirfield, the monastic seminary I attended in England some years later). During this time of searching, however, he had been questioning whether the Anglican Church was truly his spiritual home; and in January 1956, aged 33, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

That Easter he visited the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, and met Thomas Merton. His intention was to ask to be a novice at Gethsemani, where Merton was the novice master. Merton, however, said to him: “We could make a monk of you, but not a contemplative”–which is what he wanted to be. He then went at Merton’s counsel to the abbey of New Melleray, in Dubuque, Iowa, for nine years, but without making final monastic profession, and continued to explore other expressions of religious life. In 1965, the same year that Merton entered the hermitage at Gethsemani, he moved to Vancouver Island, to join others attempting to establish a hermit community there. Received into the diocese of Victoria by Bishop Remi de Roo, he was ordained priest as a hermit-monk in 1966, at the age of 43.

From 1973 until 1984, he lived away from Black Creek, undertaking advanced studies in bookbinding and archival paper conservation in the United States, Switzerland, Italy and England, then working in this field in Canada; during these years, his apartment was his hermitage. Having returned to his own hermitage in July 1984, he earns his living by bookbinding, and has also been active in ecological restoration work on the Oyster River, where his hermitage is located. He has received wide recognition for this, and a number of environmental awards. When people express a wish to keep in touch with him, he adds their names to his listserv, and regularly sends them photographs of birds, animals or plants from his immediate environs. He welcomes local people to visit him at the hermitage, and to share his life of contemplation and love of the natural order. He has arranged that on his death, possession of his 30-acre property will pass into the care of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, except for the hermitage and the road which leads to it, which will be entrusted to the Roman Catholic diocese of Victoria.

We began our interview with a very basic question: “Why be a hermit in the 21st century?” Here’s his answer. “I think that anybody who prays benefits the whole body of Christ [i.e., the Christian community, and beyond this, the entire human community]. Prayer touches everybody. The person next to me is affected by whatever I do. If I pray, that helps them, and it also helps the natural world.  I’m very keen on the natural world, and I think that the human community and the natural world must go into the future as a single sacred community or perish in the desert, as Thomas Berry [Catholic priest, cultural historian, ecologian] says. Praying, living a life of solitude and stillness, quiet, is good for my soul; it’s good for everybody, I think.”

Two points from this. First, he sees what he is doing, his way of life, as something he is doing on our behalf as well as for himself. He lives peacefully, in a peaceful place, as a kind of counter-witness to or compensation for the frantic lives so many of us live. Second, on the global level, he models the hope that we will learn to live in “a single sacred community” in which as humans we will honour our fellow-creatures of other species as well as the planet itself. Vaclav Havel, former president of then-Czechoslovakia, said something very similar: that the only way we would meet the ecological challenge of our time would be to learn to regard the earth as sacred, and to treat it as such.

“I walk out, he says, “and I know the trees, and I know the birds and the animals. They’re my friends. As I said, the human community and the rest of the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community.” His life and his work are one. In living as a hermit in communion with the surrounding natural order, he is modelling in his own way what all of us need to learn how to do in our own way–take our places as members of the single sacred community of which he speaks.

Charles Brandt, hermit, ecologist–ecologian!–celebrating a half-century today of commitment to your calling: ad multos annos!


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Gandhi’s birthday today, October 2

Today is Gandhi’s birthday.  He was born in 1869, 147 years ago and two years after Canadian confederation. Environmentalist Bill McKibben has made this interesting comment about him: that he is the only great political figure of the 20th century with whom we are not “finished.” Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Roosevelt–dead and buried; but Gandhi continues to challenge us.

His name was in the news recently in regard to a recently-erected statue of him at the University of Ghana, a gift of the Indian government. Some of the students want to tear it down, Continue reading

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Guest blog: Brexit III

This guest blog comes from my friend Ryan Munn, now living in Bristol, in the UK. He is a finance and economy writer, a Canadian expat with a global outlook. He says that he loves to tell stories about how local communities can embody the good society.

This guest blog began as an email response to my second post on Brexit. I welcome any such feedback, in agreement or disagreement. Thanks to Ryan for permitting me to post his thoughts.


I’ve been taking note of your Brexit emails with interest. From my perch here in the west of England, I’m not sure the international/national media really have a handle on things. I’m offering my thoughts on this only in the hope that it could provide another viewpoint: I’ve been encouraging people to consult alternative media sources to balance out their perspective.

Particularly, I have been very disappointed in The Guardian since my arrival in the UK last year. I think that I had a really idealistic view of the newspaper back in Canada—thinking that it was progressive, balanced and unbiased. Unfortunately, none of those things are true. Especially politically. From what I can tell, The Guardian largely reports in a way that is blinkered by the assumptions of the urban internationalist class and seems unaware Continue reading

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Brexit revisited

On June 23, the UK voted by a narrow margin (52% to 48%) to leave the EU. On June 25, I wrote a blogpost about this, which I have just re-read. I received substantial support for what I said, and a few critiques. Re-reading my post, there is little I would change. I said that Boris Johnson was a likely PM, and I was wrong there. On that score, Continue reading

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Trudeau, Auschwitz and Black Lives Matter

A classic Buddhist aphorism says that everything is connected to everything else. Our challenge, then, is to identify connections and their meaning as we try to live discerning lives, both as individuals and as citizens.

In this post I want to connect the recent visit of Prime Minister Trudeau to Auschwitz with the tragedies of racism and violence affecting our neighbours to the south. The connections are there, but are invisible to most people.

Last week, Mr Trudeau visited Auschwitz, and was moved to the point of tears. I take a moment here to commend him for not being embarrassed to show emotion. I didn’t myself weep when I went to Auschwitz: somehow my experience was one of being numbed by the horror of the place rather than being moved to tears. However, about a week later, when I visited Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I burst into tears immediately. I was experiencing the truth of the comment made by Stalin (not someone I frequently quote), to the effect that the deaths of millions are statistics; the death of an individual is a tragedy.

Mr Trudeau was accompanied on this visit by Rabbi Adam Sheier of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, and by David J. Cape, chair of CIJA–the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. CIJA claims to speak for all Canadian Jews, but as the existence of IJV–Independent Jewish Voices–demonstrates, it does not. The fact, however, that its representatives accompanied the PM on his visit is a clear signal that CIJA has his ear on the subject of Israel-Palestine. This further suggests that there is no immediate hope of a change in Canadian policy from the positions taken by the Harper government. In essence, this was and remains one of unquestioning support for the government of Israel, with no support to the Palestinians suffering under Israel’s brutal occupation.

I move on now to my second concern, the misery affecting Americans, black and white, exemplified both by the shooting of  black men–Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, others–by white police officers, and by the shooting of five white officers–Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens and Michael Smith–by a black sniper in Dallas. Misery of this kind continues to be inflicted on both white and black by the deeply-rooted racism which the United States has to this point failed to uproot. I quickly add that I have been glad to learn that there now exists in the US a national task group including both black and white police officers which is tackling the encultured racism of police. We can only wish them speedy success.

There is in fact a direct connection between the suffering of Palestinians and the racial violence of the United States. Here is a word about that from Dr Mazin Qumsiyeh, professor of biology at Bethlehem University, whom I heard speak in Portland last year.

“The militarization of the US police has been driven largely by Israel touting the need for ‘counter-terrorism training.’ That training in which hundreds (perhaps thousands so far) of senior US police officers travel to our country (Palestine, now under the
regime called “Israel”) to train in the same methods used to quell the
native Palestinians. Those “methods” are not too complicated. They rely on
two elements: brutality and racism. Jewish soldiers and “police” learn and
teach that rights are only for the chosen people and the natives have no
rights. So shoot first; then if need be, you can ask questions later.  The US
officers trained by Israeli regime officers go back to the USA and train
yet more white officers to be racist. . . . The US public needs to be told the truth about
what is going on here. The militarization of the US police forces must end
and be reversed now. Police should become community policing and reflective
of the diversity of the communities they serve. The Israel lobby should be
at least registered as a foreign lobby and curbed when it undermines US
interests. This is the only way to end the precipitous decline of the US.” https://electronicintifada.net/content/israels-export-occupation-police-tactics/8485
http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/07/28/422190/US-police-brutality-African-Americans (group email, July 11, 2016).

What Dr Qumsiyeh calls “the militarization of the US police forces” is also fostered by the Pentagon, which sells off military surplus, including tanks, to local police forces at bargain prices. When war-level weaponry is combined with racism, and with the stress of police work, the mixture is a deadly one.

Americans are addressing this issue, and we must wish them well in their efforts. But I am writing this as a Canadian, and my chief concern is the continuing blindness of our own government to the brutal occupation of Palestine, now of 68 years (!) duration. I am aware that this blindness arises from post-Holocaust fear on the part of many Israelis, which, cruelly, their government encourages and keeps alive, and the hesitation of so many who are not Jewish to speak critically of Israel lest it be heard as anti-semitism. It seems to be necessary to keep repeating what is in fact the case: that criticism of the Israeli government is *not* anti-semitism, any more than the criticism of our own government is anti-Canadianism. Peter Larson, whose web-based column “Canada Talks Israel-Palestine” offers regular and thoughtful analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and from whose e-mailing of July 13 I took the information about Trudeau’s visit to Auschwitz, says, incisively, that he is ready to criticize any government, anywhere in the world, which does what the Israeli government to the people whose territory it occupies.

Trudeau and Auschwitz, Dallas and Israel: connections of which we need to be aware. My thanks to Peter Larson and Mazin Qumsiyeh for helping us become more discerning citizens at a very challenging historical moment.

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Ginger Goodwin, hero

I’m just back from a lovely break on Vancouver Island. I visited my cousin Jane at her paradisal oceanside cottage in the Courtenay Regional District, along with her friend and mine, the excellent Claudia. During that visit, we went to Cumberland, a nearby town, and spent an instructive hour in the Cumberland Museum and Archives, where we encountered many remembrances of someone whose name I recognized, Ginger Goodwin (his original forename was Albert), but about whom I knew very little.

I had only the vaguest ideas about him. I knew he had been shot, and so thought he must have been some kind of criminal. In a technical sense he was: he had failed to report to the military authorities to be drafted for service in WWI. But law and justice Continue reading

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Brexit: in one word, a disaster

On June 23 the people of the up-to-this-point-United Kingdom made a historic, and in my view, very foolish and shortsighted decision: to leave the European Union. The vote was 52% for “leave,” and 48% for “remain.” My first point: this was far too important a decision to be made on the 50%+1 basis. It should at least have required a two-thirds majority, if not a three-quarters. If the condo in which I live Continue reading

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Trevor Huddleston, born June 13, 1913

Couldn’t get back to sleep last night, and so got up, made tea, found a book to read: Trevor Huddleston: A Life, by Robin Denniston (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999). I noticed that I was reading his biography on his birthday–a certain appropriateness there.

And who was he? When he died in 1998, this is what Nelson Mandela said: “He was a pillar of wisdom, humility and sacrifice to the legions of freedom fighters in the darkest moments of the struggle against apartheid.”

Here is a bare-bones outlines of his career. Born into an upper-class family in 1913, after ordination he joined the Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican religious order, in 1939. When he was 48, he became the last white bishop of Masasi, in Tanzania. Later he became bishop of Stepney, in East London, and finally, based in Mauritius, archbishop of the Province of the Indian Ocean. He maintained his opposition to apartheid until it fell. He died in 1998.

Here’s my own story in regard to Trevor Huddleston. Continue reading

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